OCTOBER 28, 2012
WHERE HAS ALL THE EXCITEMENT gone for statehood in the West Bank? A year ago in September there were festivities and public displays of hope on the streets of Ramallah; one year later, little attention was paid to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s United Nations speech reiterating the need for an independent Palestinian state. Lackluster support for the PA should come as no surprise. In the past 12 months alone, the United States blocked the PA’s bid to declare statehood; Israel has intensified settlement growth while Israeli settlers have rampaged, destroying property and desecrating holy sites with impunity; the international community, focused on Iran and the threat of regional war, has stood idly by. An equitable two state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is all but dead.
Last month’s surprise economic protests are a stark reminder of the genuine discontent simmering in the West Bank, as well as the dire economic straits many Palestinians experience. Fed up with rising prices for goods and services, Palestinians rose up in sweeping protests throughout the major cities dotting the rugged landscape of the West Bank. Demonstrators stormed the municipality of Hebron while thousands threw shoes at a poster of former IMF official and current Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Riding a wave of media hysteria that the Arab Spring might have arrived in Palestine, the Associated Press referred to these protests as the largest against the Palestinian Authority in its 18-year history.
Yet seemingly as soon as these protests began, they were gone. Some in Ramallah believed they were a show to scare the international community into providing emergency aid to the Palestinian Authority, another way of perpetuating the status quo of dependent Palestinians. From this melancholy perspective, the protests were successful. Israel released 250 million shekels in tax revenue, while the European Union authorized 100 million euros for the fledging Palestinian Authority. While this round of protests might have been carefully scripted, there can be no doubt that they tapped into a large reservoir of deep Palestinian anger.
While the media pays far too little attention to everyday developments on the ground and the international community stands idly by, the Palestinian voice has become divided and confused, its body politic fractured without recourse to action. This abject condition of stalemate and division is the subject Raja Shehadeh’s important personal diary of the past two years in Ramallah, Occupation Diaries. Shehadeh, a writer and prominent lawyer who helped found the Palestinian legal organization Al Haq in the late 1970s, is following up on the critically acclaimed 2007 collection of musings, Palestinian Walks. His carefully scripted prose has become an important source of insight into life on the West Bank amidst stagnation and the continued entrenchment of occupation. Occupation Diaries is a collection of sensitive meditations on the violent status quo between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as his own position in the changing Palestinian national struggle for liberation.
Palestinian Walks, which won the Orwell Prize in 2007, chronicles the changing physical landscape of the rugged hills surrounding Ramallah. Through various treks, Shehadeh encounters terrain destroyed through Israeli colonial adventure, but with small pockets of hope. Occupation Diaries picks up where Palestinian Walks left off, but with less nature and more anger.
Writing from his garden, tucked somewhere in Ramallah’s jumbled architecture, Shehadeh documents the absurdities of life in Ramallah through delicate depictions and measured outbursts. His strength as a writer lays in his uncanny ability to create a raw and often emotional snapshot of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak in 2011, the question on everyone’s mind in Ramallah was whether the popular desire for freedom from tyranny would sweep into the West Bank, spurring Palestinians into new rebellion against Israel. It didn’t, but Shehadeh expertly conveys his own feelings of excitement while watching the Egyptian revolution unfold on Al Jazeera (how thankful, he notes, that Al Jazeera exists and he does not have to depend on biased coverage from the BBC and CNN). He captures that rare moment of hope that change was coming to the West Bank.
Shehadeh’s choice to write the book in diary format is a clever one, allowing him to explore the conflict through deeply personal reflections. His poignant recollections of family life in Jaffa before 1948 include trips to Jerusalem with his father, and the process by which he created his garden in Ramallah, his refuge in his own land. At the same time, he writes just as much about his interest in literature and music as he does about his life in occupied land, challenging the reader, albeit indirectly, to think beyond the common stereotype of the Palestinian as either violent militants on the one hand, or helpless victim on the other. The juxtaposition of Shehadeh’s home, lined with books and the sounds of Bach, and the West Bank, cut up with Israeli separation walls and patrolling soldiers, forces the reader to view Palestinians not as an occupied population but as a thinking people struggling with domination.
Shehadeh presents personal histories with a certain gentility — a tone which contrasts starkly when it comes to the Israelis. Returning from a trip to Europe, Shehadeh describes the anxiety that all Palestinians experience when they return to their homeland by way of borders Israel controls:
It is always when I’m on my way back to Israel that I feel most acutely how the Israelis are invaders who have taken over my country and closed its borders to the original inhabitants. We can leave and return only at the discretion of the invaders. The possibility of being refused entry at the border always looms large in my mind and keeps me on edge for the entire journey back. I realized that I was already checking my papers. For the past six weeks I have had a break from being hostage to my Israeli Identity Card, which at home I need to carry with me all the time. Obsessively I keep checking that I have not lost it, over and over, as though my life depended on it.
The theme of being held hostage is personal, yet emblematic of the Palestinian experience. Occupation and Israeli control permeates a core existential anxiety of Palestinians worldwide; Shehadeh has given it a rare voice here, making Occupation Diaries an important, first-hand account of the conflict and its ramifications on everyday life.
Shehadeh’s anger is clear, and framed in paradoxes. At various points he describes with certainty his belief that the two state solution is the correct path to resolving the stalemate. But the picture he presents of entrenched occupation and Israeli intransigence appears to contradict any hope that such a solution is realistic in the near future. Shehadeh is well aware of Edward Said’s prophetic criticism that the Oslo peace process is an Israeli vehicle for separation and control, as well as a proxy for land grabbing. It’s one possible reason why Shehadeh appears listless in his assessment of the present political reality, where the prospect of a two state solution is systematically being destroyed. One is also left wondering if this burning desire for two states is reflective of the majority of Palestinians at this point.
He also reports on what he sees as more insidious efforts to undermine Palestinian identity. The planned city of Rawabi, just outside Ramallah, is an ominous symbol of the effects that 40 years of occupation have had on Palestinians. Heavily financed by foreign investment, Rawabi is the first planned Palestinian city on the West Bank, enchanting upwardly-mobile middle class families with the prospect of suburban life. For Shehadeh, an avid walker with an affectionate admiration for the delicate West Bank landscape, the city represents something much more sinister. In order to build it, a pristine hilltop will be leveled, destroying the natural habitat. Shehadeh is quick to make the connection between Rawabi and the Israeli settlements that have changed the West Bank forever. He notes how similar Rawabi’s architecture and urban design are to what one finds in Israeli settlements occupying surrounding hilltops. Rawabi effectively reveals an internationalization of years of Israeli settlement building on the West Bank.
The growing power of the Palestinian Authority in policing the West Bank at the behest of Israel is an important dimension of life unpacked in Occupation Diaries. To be sure, the rise of Palestinian Authority security forces on the West Bank is a disturbing development, according to Shehadeh’s thinking. Trained by the United States and Israel, PA forces are in the process of creating a state in which dissent is carefully controlled according to Israeli interests. After hearing that PA security forces roughly broke up a Palestinian protest against negotiations with Israel in Ramallah, Shehadeh ends his entry for the day: “As I listened, I felt the fear of a police state approaching.”
Ramallah’s centrality in Occupation Diaries is simultaneously a strong and weak point in the book. His descriptions of a divided city are convincing: Ramallah, a de-facto capital by design, with a different complexion from the rest of the West Bank, with its Israeli checkpoints controlling every entrance, defines the geography of this story. But while the Israeli military has relaxed checkpoints between cities, making a trip from Nablus to Ramallah easier, Shehadeh doesn’t make the trip in Occupation Diaries. This absence leaves the reader wondering about how the trip from Nablus to Ramallah feels, without the suffocating infrastructure of Second Intifada in place.
Given developments in periphery cities like Jenin and Hebron, Ramallah’s exclusivity in the story is unfortunate. Last month, a Palestinian Authority security chief in Jenin was gunned down in broad daylight, part of a developing civil war between the Palestinian Authority and residents in the city, many of whom are beginning to see PA rule as subverting popular resistance to Israeli occupation. Amidst this violent status quo, the contours of which Shehadeh is almost certainly familiar, one thing is for sure; the future dynamics of the Palestinian struggle are taking shape in outlying West Bank cities, and not in Ramallah.
Hanging over all aspects of life in the West Bank is that Israel’s strategy of separating the Palestinians, crystallized in the Oslo accords and implemented with the creation of Israel’s separation barrier, has been all but realized. Israeli society has disengaged itself from Palestinians, and most Israelis only encounter Palestinians while in military uniform. The conflict appears beyond reconciliation.
Occupation Diaries is a memoir of a Palestinian intellectual who finds himself increasingly sidelined in the changing dynamics of a national struggle. That struggle is transforming from one of a secular resistance infused with intellectual currents, to one in which religion plays a more dramatic, organizing role. Shehadeh seems to take all this in with a certain resignation. At the core of his fatigue could be the simple fact of the grinding attrition that defines Palestinian life. Or perhaps it is the reality the he, a writer and intellectual, and others like him, have been pushed to the sidelines of a national struggle he helped define.